ST. PETERSBURG — On Beach Drive the restaurants are hot, the arts are alive, the foot traffic is teeming but retail in the area is spotty.
With the pending closing of Coco Brazil women's clothier, In Search of Balance is the only retailer left of the original Third and Fourth avenue stores that opened five or fewer years ago in Parkshore Plaza and 400 Beach.
"We're hanging on," said Julie Meyer, who owns the activewear store with her husband, Steve. "Getting people to come off of Beach Drive is tough even though we're a matter of yards away."
Other stores right off Beach Drive that have closed include Kabloom florist, Sebastian Cole's clothier, Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery, Davis Anthony Home and Garden, and Maison Rouge lingerie.
When these stores opened, BayWalk was past its heyday but still had quality tenants that gave folks a reason to make that turn off Beach Drive.
"Unfortunately we don't have that many shops for people to stroll," Meyer said. "The first two customers I had this morning were two women from Colorado. They asked me, 'Where's the shopping?' It happens all day long."
"The important thing is trying to get people to turn that corner," said Paul Bailey, who opened Savory Spice Shop at 400 Beach Drive NE in November. "We're finding just off the beaten path it's slower than what you would see on Beach Drive."
He is pleased with his store's performance so far and gets a lot of exposure to motorists coming off Interstate 275 down Fourth Avenue N to Straub Park, but isn't getting an explosion of foot traffic as Beach Drive gets busier.
Even though it's closing, Coco Brazil may be the exception, said owner Patricia Lacognata. Her store just off Beach Drive on Fourth Avenue N has had plenty of business, increasingly so since the Chihuly museum opened. She is closing to expand a new business as the exclusive U.S. distributor of the Brazilian clothing line she retails.
"I'm sad that I'm leaving the store. I had no idea this new business was going to take off like it is," said Lacognata, who will keep another Coco Brazil store open in Tampa's Old Hyde Park Village. She has signed 67 stores across the country to carry the line.
Her departure leaves 1,582 square feet to fill. The Gift Box is opening in April in the space next door that Sebastian Cole vacated in January.
"It will be a mix between the old B. Chandlers and the Straw Goat. Once it gets established it will benefit from the foot traffic along Beach Drive, but it will be a destination in and of itself," said John Hamilton, who owns and manages the retail space at 400 Beach Drive and Parkshore Plaza. He already has three retailers considering the Coco Brazil space and has calls every day, as opposed to last summer when the phone didn't ring. He gets more calls, however, from businesses interested in space on Beach Drive.
"When we started with the project we were thinking the avenues would be stronger. We were looking at BayWalk being a point of interest that at this stage it's not," said Hamilton, president of Beach Drive Retail. "We've been flexible with tenants. The differential between rental rates on Beach Drive and Third and Fourth avenues has widened over the years." It's around $35 a square foot on Beach Drive and $25 a square foot on the avenues.
Medical, financial and insurance businesses are interested in space, but Hamilton said he knows that is not what will make Beach Drive and downtown a shopping destination.
"Over time it's all going to solidify," he said. "Unless you get a certain concentration of those retailers it's hard to get people to come downtown and view downtown as a traditional retail venue."
Merchants say they direct customers to each others' stores and appreciate hotel concierges who do the same. But even when folks are destined for the Savory Spice Store with address in hand, they don't always make it, Bailey laughed. The store's address is 400 Beach Drive, though it's actually on Fourth Avenue N and almost 10 doors away from the 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House. The staff regularly answer calls from people trying to find it. The same happens at In Search of Balance with an address of 300 Beach Drive but actually facing Third Avenue N.
"We all need and want BayWalk to survive and thrive. We want to see more and more retail just to give that mingling effect," said Meyer, who has seen an increase in traffic since the opening of the Chihuly Collection and the Salvador Dalí Museum. "The restaurants certainly seem to be doing well. The arts are wonderful. But part of the fun of vacation is shopping."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.